'Small investment, big payback': Business owners call on Ford government to legislate paid sick leave

A group of business owners joined together on Wednesday to demand that the Ontario government legislate paid sick leave immediately during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Owners to urge province to pass Bill 239, Stay Home If You Are Sick Act, a private member's bill

A man holds up a sign as a group advocating for provincially mandated paid sick days for workers holds a rally outside the Ontario legislature in Toronto on Wednesday, Jan. 13. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

When the Ontario legislature returns next week, a group of business owners want paid sick days to be top of the agenda.

"Paying people to stay home when they're sick is crucial to public health and a safe workplace," said Jessica Carpinone, owner of Bread By Us, a bakery and café in Ottawa that's offered paid sick days since opening seven years ago.

Carpinone joined fellow business owners at an online news conference on Wednesday, providing accounts of how providing paid sick leave is good for businesses, employees and communities. The business owners are members of the Better Way Alliance, an organization that describes itself as a growing movement of businesses that support decent wages, paid sick days and fair scheduling laws.

The group urged the government to pass Bill 239, the Stay Home If You Are Sick Act, a private member's bill that has passed first reading.

The bill, proposed by London West NDP MPP Peggy Sattler, would guarantee 10 personal emergency leave days a year for every worker, seven of which are paid. It would also allow for 14 more days of paid leave during any infectious disease emergency and provide financial support to ensure small businesses can survive the pandemic.

Ford previously said "everything is on the table" when it comes to curbing the spread of COVID-19 although he has repeatedly refused to implement guaranteed paid sick leave.

That's a problem since paid sick leave is key to breaking the lockdown-reopen-lockdown cycle, said Helmi Ansari, cofounder of Grosche.

"What have we learned from all these shutdowns? It's not good for business," Ansari said. "Our economy is actually suffering more because we don't have paid sick days."

In a release, the Better Way Alliance pushed back at the idea that it's in the best interest of small businesses not to pay for guaranteed sick days.

"Concern for small business is no reason to delay or deny legislated paid sick leave. In fact, business owners know from experience that paid sick leave is good for their businesses and employees, as well as for the health and well-being of their communities."

At most, Ansari said, paid sick days add between two to three per cent to his staffing costs. However, that's contingent upon all of his employees making use of all five sick days. For the most part, he said, "they haven't even used it."

Still, it's a safety net that Ansari said has helped him build loyalty among his employees.

"Our experience is small investment, big payback," he said.

The alliance argues paid sick leave would help to slow the spread of COVID-19 because it would enable workers who are infected to stay home while they are recovering. It says workers who cannot afford to stay home when sick because they don't have paid sick leave can spread illnesses to coworkers, clients and customers.

Conover said in an interview with CBC Toronto on Tuesday that the business owners have banded together because they support the same ideas.

"We're just like-minded business owners who all believe in fair wages, reliable scheduling and paid sick leave," she said.

The alliance says its members employ more than 30,000 Ontario workers in such areas as services, retail, food and beverage, and manufacturing.

The news conference comes a week after Toronto city council voted 24 to 2 to call on the province to implement 10 days of paid sick leave for workers during the pandemic immediately.

On Jan. 1, 2019, as part of amendments to the Employment Standards Act, the province repealed two paid personal emergency leave days, established by the previous Liberal government, and replaced them with three unpaid days for personal illness.

With files from Muriel Draaisma